You are now in the main content area

Dimensions in Practice Profile: Dr. Stefania Impellizzeri

By: Art Blake
May 01, 2022

Dr. Stefania Impellizzeri knows how to get a reaction. The Assistant Professor of Chemistry is rapidly developing a national reputation as a leading advocate for equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA) in her field. The internationally trained, award-winning scientist brings to her research, her teaching, and her mentoring a powerful mix of lived experience, self-awareness, expertise, and determination. When she takes this blend into the chemistry community the reaction can be intense. As she teaches her students regarding chemistry research and experiments, “Often it is not about getting the reaction “right”. Whatever reaction you get, or materials you make, is important data – that is what you learn from.”

“The culture of the chemistry community is not a very inclusive one. White men are still the dominant image of what a chemistry professor looks like and the dominant demographic of the national chemistry community,” she explains. Recent published reports by the Royal Society of Chemistry, external link indicate the pervasive problems the community faces. Tackling PDF filethe key issue of “belonging”, external link frames the RSC’s inquiries.

Chemistry’s struggle to become more inclusive requires education about how to enhance diversity and inclusion. “If I talk to colleagues in the chemistry community,” Impellizzeri says, “many often believe that it is just about the numbers—a quantitative issue. They tend to do a headcount like ‘oh I mentored this number of women over the years,’ or ‘I mentor this number of people who belong to a visible minority.’ But it is not just a matter of headcount. It’s what you do on a day-to-day basis.”

Not unique to chemistry, misunderstandings prevail about what makes someone EDIA-competent or who should make most of the effort. In research areas with little diversity, the dominant demographic can assume that their marginalized colleagues can and should take on EDIA work: “The burden to launch EDIA initiatives often falls on those who belong to equity-seeking groups, and the execution of such initiatives disproportionately leans on them to come up with ideas, join committees, lead meetings or workshops, while juggling all their other duties. This disproportionate service burden should be removed, and those who take on diversity and inclusion projects should be fairly compensated for their labour, their efforts recognized during decisions for awards, promotions, etc.”

The widespread belief that just because someone belongs to an equity deserving group, they don’t need as much EDIA training contributes to this work imbalance. As Impellizzeri says, “I know that just because I am a woman that doesn’t mean I am automatically trained in best EDIA practices, right? I know plenty of men in my field that know far more about it than other women in my field. It is wrong to assume that simply because someone identifies as a member of an equity-seeking group they are interested or qualified in doing the work”.

Impellizzeri describes herself as relatively new to EDIA competency. “I wasn’t completely unaware before, but I couldn’t put it into words. I come from a background of enormous privilege. I am white, I am cis, and I am not affected by a disability. I had the opportunity to study abroad because I had the financial support. So, I have not faced the same barriers many of my students have faced. But I have experienced gender discrimination, though at the time I was not necessarily able to know that’s what was really happening, especially when such behaviour wasn’t so explicit. I needed other people – such as [colleague and Professor in Chemistry and Biology] Imogen Coe – to help me put into words what I had experienced, to see the patterns, and connect the dots. Then I was able to say, “me too!” Since then, I have become enormously conscious of everything around me, of other people’s situations, and that’s why I have taken on such an active role regarding EDIA.”

Like many other researchers, Impellizzeri’s work does not directly concern EDIA in any way. Impellizzeri’s lab, external link researches nanomaterials and plasmonics  – working at the intersection of physical, organic, and materials chemistry. Issues addressed by the acronym “EDIA” do not naturally come up. “Because of the type of chemistry I do, I do not work with living things, I work with materials. So, for example, sex and gender is not something that comes into my research. The way I try to be inclusive in my research is to be inclusive with my group of trainees and my students, implementing practices that help researchers understand equity, accessibility, etc. That’s why I became interested in studying inclusive practices in mentoring.”

Impellizzeri “re-mixes” some standard ingredients in chemistry research and education and turns them into sites for deep learning about EDIA – addressing barriers to inclusion such as sexism, racism or homophobia, and the responsibilities of those with more privilege to take the lead in eliminating such barriers.

Graduate and postdoctoral work in chemistry is frequently built on the expectation that trainees will spend very long hours in the lab. Some supervisors measure their trainees’ dedication and scholarly “excellence” through such hours. Impellizzeri is adamant that such practices are outdated, sometimes counter-productive, and create exclusion. She vividly remembers her Ph.D. work in the United States built on the expectation of long hours: “I experienced this, I went through this – working very long hours on weekdays and on weekends too. There were labs that ran from 7 am to 7 pm Monday through Saturday, sometimes more. I remember one example of a postdoc in my graduate school who was given by his supervisor exactly 2 hours to leave the lab and go to the hospital where his wife was giving birth to their first child.”

Impellizzeri learned from her own experience and has created a very different lab work culture: “With my lab team I don’t say how many hours they have to work. It is not about hours; we don’t talk about it that way. It’s about milestones in their research project and how long it will take to reach that stage. I ask them to make a week-by-week plan, based on what they can realistically do based on their project in the context of their other commitments. I want them to know that they are absolutely free to fulfill their commitments – academic and personal – their classes as well as doctor appointments, family commitments and so on.”

Another standard ingredient of chemistry education is the literature review among lab members. Each member takes a turn choosing an article for the group to read, then discuss and analyze. When it is her turn, Impellizzeri chooses to present papers which address barriers to equity and inclusion in science. “In my group, we read these kinds of essays a lot. We read them, we criticize them, we analyze them. By talking about these issues, we become aware that barriers exist. Some of my students say ‘oh, I didn’t even realize this was a problem.’ I didn’t have this kind of exposure to equity issues when I was a grad student. I want to engage my students as early as possible in these discussions.”

One example of a paper Impellizzeri read recently with her trainees is a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters by Anna Krylov, external link, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California: “Despite [Krylov] seeming somewhat interested in the promotion of gender equality in STEM fields, she vigorously wrote against ‘politicizing science,’ a practice she sees in anybody who tries to be inclusive or decolonize the curriculum. To her, they are ‘politicizing science.’ But who are we kidding! Since when has science not been political? Science has always been used in the past to purposely exclude people. For example, by manufacturing ‘scientific theories’ such as women are less evolved than men or using science to exclude or dehumanize Black people. Not to mention that scientific research has always been influenced by concurrent societal priorities. It is not a coincidence that the scientific funding landscape may change drastically with changing political party representation and governance.  Plus, scientists are people, with their own biases and opinions and beliefs, making science inherently political. So now when people make comments about how being inclusive, or seeking to hire more women faculty members, is ‘politicizing’ science, it’s ridiculous.”

To achieve sustainable change in the chemistry community Impellizzeri believes that learning about the issues addressed by the acronym EDIA should be part of the curriculum – an added ingredient to the standard mix of technical and professional training. “EDIA is a set of professional skills that should be learned so that students and trainees can practice and continuously improve through self-reflection and feedback.”

Through her own evolution, as well as that of her trainees, Impellizzeri knows such skills can make a difference in research sites and throughout someone’s scientific career. A major part of that positive change is the impact on others: “There have been a minority of students I’ve trained so far who haven’t realized there are barriers and have resisted the evidence. This is because they have not been affected. When they learn they exist they also learn why they may not have been affected. Once they understand, then they can figure out how to help others overcome barriers. Privilege is thinking there are no problems because you’ve not been affected. You can use that privilege; you can use your voice and your awareness to lower the barriers that others face.”